When your sister gets engaged first...


“I’m dating someone,” I said, not wanting to be set up with a stranger. How pathetic would that be?


My gaze snagged on Max’s.


He lifted a brow in a what the hell are you doing expression I’d come to love over the years. He knew I wasn’t dating anyone.


“I didn’t know you were dating,” Aubree said at the same time Mom said, “Who?”


My heart thundered in my ears. I had to name someone. But only one name came to mind, and they just might believe it.


“Max.” I cleared my throat. “I’m dating Max.”


Max’s body tensed, the air between us chilled.


Aubree looked from me to him. “You’re dating Max?”


I waited for him to deny it.


I’d insisted for years that Max and I were merely friends, that we never thought of each other as anything else. Our friendship was too precious to reflect on that kiss we’d shared as teens. I shook my head to clear the image and the feel of his lips on mine. I looked down at Max, pleading for him to go along with me. My head bobbed. “That’s right. I’m dating Max.”


Then I carried the dirty dishes into the kitchen, rinsing and stacking them in the washer with more force than necessary. My movements were jerky, my stomach in knots. Would Max be irritated with me?


Aubree followed me into the kitchen. “How long have you been dating?”


I slowly closed the dishwasher, giving myself time to compose my face and figure out what I should say. I couldn’t even think about what Max was going through, alone at the table.


“It’s new, but we’ve known each other forever. It was a logical progression.” It was something I’d thought about over the years, imagined even, until I remembered we were friends—best friends—and friends didn’t cross that line.


Aubree opened and closed her mouth as if she was struggling with what to say. “I had no idea.”


“We wanted some time to ourselves before we announced it.”


“That’s understandable.” Aubree considered me as if she were looking for any sign that I wasn’t being entirely truthful.


I carefully schooled my features, needing to keep up the charade until I was outside of this house and away from my family.


Max appeared next to me, pulling me into his side. As always, his arm around me felt good, except this time, I sagged into him. “We were keeping it a secret. Isn’t that right, babe?”


His tone held a bite to it, even as the word “babe” melted my insides the same way his embrace had my limbs. “That’s right.”


My mouth was dry. Too dry. I spun away from him, grabbing a glass from the cupboard and filling it from the water filter on the fridge. My hands shook while I waited for it to fill up.


“I hope this doesn’t mean you won’t have time to help with the wedding,” Aubree said tentatively.


I spun around to face her. “Of course, I’ll help with the wedding. I’m never too busy for you. You know that.”


Mom stood in the doorway, a hurt expression on her face. “When were you going to tell us?”


I shrugged, feeling like a petulant teenager. “I just did.”


“You know what I mean,” Mom chided, moving farther into the room.


Max crossed his arms over his chest, resting a hip against the counter. “Yeah, why didn’t you want to tell everyone?”


“Because it’s new, and we didn’t want to ruin our friendship if it didn’t work out.” That was the truth. It was what I’d thought the one and only time his lips met mine. If I gave in to the sensation—the goose bumps erupting over my skin and the tingles racing down my spine—I’d be lost in Max. Our friendship would be in tatters on the ground, and I’d never get it back again.


I didn’t want everyone talking about how Aubree got engaged before her big sister. I didn’t want to hear the speculation about me getting older, and not dating anyone. This would keep people off that track of talk—as long as Max went along with it.


Max pushed off the counter, lowering his arms to his side as he moved closer to me. His broad shoulders blocked out my mother and sister until he was all I saw. Lowering his voice, he said, “You have a lot of explaining to do.”


His gaze over my face was like a soft caress.


I swallowed over the knot in my throat before I nodded tightly. “Of course.”


I owed Max for my over-the-top behavior. I’d never done something like this. I’d never lied to my family to get them off my back. It was so out of character for me. I always supported Aubree in whatever she did and was never jealous of the attention she received.


He lifted his hand, running his thumb over my bottom lip, his expression a mix of admiration and surprise. I’d shocked everyone with my behavior, including myself.


I needed to get out of this room, this house, and I’d be able to draw in a deep breath. I’d calm the raging storm in my head and unravel the knot in my stomach. I just needed space.


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